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What does Florida's new rule on the American Library Association mean for public libraries?

Books on a library bookshelf
Victoria Crosdale
A 2021 count by the American Library Association, revealed nearly 1,600 different books were challenged or banned across the country.

The Florida Department of State issued a new rule that says it will "not allow grant project activities" associated with the American Library Association and its affiliates.

A new rule that prohibits "grant activities" with the American Library Association makes Florida the latest state to cut ties with the oldest and largest library organization in the world.

The move is "in response to the scrutiny related to the use of public funds to support these organizations" and applies to the "entire project including all activities, grant funds and local match funds," according to the Florida Library Association's statement on the issue.

The Florida Department of State's decision, first reported by Politico, follows a public clash between the ALA and conservatives on book bans and the organization's leadership.

Conservative Republican lawmakers criticized the ALA's library bill of rights for opposing efforts to restrict access to library services, materials and facilities based on the age of library users.

Several states, including Wyoming, Alabama, Missouri, and Texas, announced cutting ties with the organization after its president made a now-deleted statement calling herself a "Marxist lesbian" on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

According to news reports, library systems in Florida counties Hernando, Citrus and Collier withdrew their institutional memberships from the ALA prior to the state ruling. Their annual dues ranged from $275 to $1,600.

But it's uncertain if the state's most recent ruling officially calls for libraries to revoke their membership.

The Florida Department of State did not respond to WUSF's multiple requests for comment.

How does the new rule affect Florida's libraries?

The state's chapter of the ALA, the Florida Library Association, stated that they do not know the full impact of the new requirement.

However, the chapter said the rule will "limit their ability to interact with five library cooperatives" across the state, including the Tampa Bay Library Coalition, as well as the Orange County Library System, in regards to any of their grant-funded programs.

According to an ALA spokesperson, the organization helps advocate for state-level funding from the federal government through the Institute of Museum and Library Services grants.

Through the ALA's efforts with its members and allies, the State Library in Florida received about $8.5 million annually.

The organization also pushed for support for libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Florida State Library received $1.94 million from the CARES Act and $6.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

In terms of direct awards, the ALA has awarded 33 libraries in Florida a total of $252,000 since 2021. The grants funded digital training workshops, STEM resources, other professional development, and bolstered technology in small and rural libraries.

Local library systems including Manatee and Sarasota said they do not receive grants from the ALA, but have institutional memberships. Their annual dues are $1,450 and $1,300, respectively.

Libraries in Pasco, Pinellas and Polk County stated they have no ties, either grant or institutional memberships, with the ALA. Individual librarians may still choose to be a member of the organization, said their library spokespeople.

Hillsborough County dropped their $2,100 annual ALA membership for their libraries earlier this year. A county spokesperson said the decision was based strictly on cost-effectiveness.

But the evaluation was conducted after a request from county commissioner Michael Owen, who has publicly criticized the ALA's politics, based on reports from the Tampa Bay Times.

Institutional memberships allow libraries to receive discounts for group trainings for staff and individual workshops.

According to the ALA, the largest portions of dues goes directly into supporting professional development for library workers (40%). About 21% goes towards membership engagement, and 14% towards advocating for the preservation of library services.

What's next?

The FLA said their board of directors are working to open a dialogue with the Florida Department of State, which oversees the Division of Library and Information Services, to reconsider the new grant requirement.

Executive Director of the FLA Jennifer Abdelnour said the chapter is not disassociating from the ALA and that FLA members "do not need to take action."

Manatee County spokesperson Bill Logan said the library system will continue to operate as usual until further instruction from the Board of County Commissioners.

In a statement responding to the new state ruling, the FLA also clarified that, although it is affiliated with the ALA, it has full authority of its own affairs.

That statement further reads:

"FLA and all libraries in the Sunshine State share a commitment to provide library service and resources that represent the needs and values of Florida’s citizens. This includes representing views that some might deem controversial or unpopular; and to make materials freely available to those who want them. We willingly share and defend the values of intellectual freedom and freedom to read."

Neither ALA nor FLA has power over what books are part of local library collections either.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.